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Monday, October 23, 2017

BEIRUT (Reuters) – An operation to bring thousands of people out of the last rebel-held enclave of Aleppo was under way again on Monday after being held up for several days, together with the evacuation of two besieged pro-government villages in nearby Idlib province.

Convoys of buses from eastern Aleppo reached rebel-held areas of countryside to the west of the city, according to a U.N. official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

At the same time, 10 buses left the Shi’ite Muslim villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, north of Idlib, for government lines in Aleppo, the sources said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a total of 12,000 civilians had been evacuated from Aleppo, including 4,500 since midnight on Sunday.

The evacuation of civilians, including wounded people, from the two villages had been demanded by the Syrian army and its allies before they would allow fighters and civilians trapped in Aleppo to depart. The stand-off halted the Aleppo evacuation over the weekend.

“First limited evacuations, finally, tonight from east Aleppo and Foua & Kefraya. Many thousands more are waiting to be evacuated soon,” Jan Egeland, who chairs the United Nations aid task force in Syria, tweeted late on Sunday night.

Syrian state TV and pro-Damascus stations showed the first four buses arriving in Aleppo from the besieged villages, accompanied by pick-up trucks and with people sitting on their roofs.

In Idlib, aid workers said more than 60 buses had arrived from Aleppo. Some evacuees were being taken in by relatives or other residents, while others could be housed in tents.

The recapture of Aleppo is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest victory so far in the nearly six-year-old war, but the fighting is by no means over with large tracts of the country still under the control of insurgent and Islamist groups.

WET AND COLD

Photographs of people evacuated from Aleppo showed large groups of people standing or crouching with their belongings or loading sacks onto trucks before heading off to further destinations.

Children, dressed in winter clothes against the cold, carried small backpacks or played with kittens and one older man, in traditional Arab robes and headdress, sat holding a stick.

Later on Monday, the Security Council will vote in New York on a resolution to allow U.N. staff to monitor the evacuations. The draft resolution was the result of a compromise between Russia and France, and the United States said it was expected to pass unanimously.

On Sunday, some of the buses sent to al-Foua and Kefraya to carry evacuees out were attacked and torched by armed men, who shouted “God is greatest” and brandished their weapons in front of the burning vehicles, according to a video posted online.

That incident threatened to derail the evacuations, the result of intense negotiations between Russia – Assad’s main supporter – and Turkey, which backs some large rebel groups.

The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey will hold talks in Moscow on Tuesday aimed at giving fresh impetus for a solution in Aleppo.

“It is not a miracle meeting but will give all sides a chance to listen to each other,” an official from Turkey’s foreign ministry said.

At stake is the fate of thousands of people still stuck in the last rebel bastion in Aleppo after a series of sudden advances by the Syrian army and allied Shi’ite militias under an intense bombardment that pulverized large sections of the city.

“JUST WANT TO ESCAPE”

They have been waiting for the chance to leave Aleppo since the ceasefire and evacuation deal was agreed late last Tuesday, but have struggled to do so during days of hold-ups. The weather in Aleppo has been wet and very cold and there is little shelter and few services in the tiny rebel zone.

In the square in Aleppo’s Sukari district, organizers gave every family a number to allow them access to buses.

“Everyone is waiting until they are evacuated. They just want to escape,” said Salah al Attar, a former teacher with his five children, wife and mother.

Thousands of people were evacuated on Thursday, the first to leave under the ceasefire deal that ends fighting in the city where violence erupted in 2012, a year after the start of conflict in other parts of Syria.

They were taken to rebel-held districts of the countryside west of Aleppo. Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed in Syria near the Turkish border to the north.

For four years the city was split between a rebel-held eastern sector and the government-held western districts. During the summer, the army and its allies managed to besiege the rebel sector before using intense bombardment and ground assaults to retake it in recent months.

A Reuters reporter who visited recaptured districts of Aleppo in recent days saw large swathes reduced to ruins, with rubble and other debris clogging the streets and sections of the famous Old City all but destroyed.

Assad is backed in the war by Russian air power and Shi’ite militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and Iraq’s Harakat al-Nujaba. The mostly Sunni rebels include groups supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.

East of Aleppo, several villages held by Islamic State have been captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of militias backed by the United States that includes a strong Kurdish contingent, the Observatory said.

The advance is part of a campaign backed by an international coalition to drive Islamic State from its Syrian capital of Raqqa.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Humeyra Pamuk, Stephanie Nebehay, writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Peter Millership)

IMAGE: A member of forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad stands with a civilian on the rubble of the Carlton Hotel, in the government controlled area of Aleppo, Syria December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki